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IDAGIO Meets … Laurence Equilbey

The French conductor discusses her new album, exploring symphonies by Parisian composer Louise Farrenc

Photo © Julien Benhamou

On a new album with her period-instrument Insula Orchestra, French conductor Laurence Equilbey showcases symphonies by the Parisian composer Louise Farrenc (1804–1875). She discusses the works, championing female composers and what's planned next for her and her orchestra.

How did you discover Louise Farrenc for the first time?

When I created the Insula Orchestra with the project La Seine Musicale, our values included the desire to research our musical heritage, including music written by female composers, and perform it. I knew Louise Farrenc through her chamber music but I hadn't got to know her symphonies before, which had just been newly published. Then suddenly I became interested in them and found that the quality of the composition was really extremely high.

Which was the first work you performed?

We decided to do the Third Symphony first, and we loved it so much – and audiences loved it too – that we decided right away to record her complete symphonic works with Warner Classics. We've started with the first and third, and next we'll record the second as well as some of her overtures, and maybe a work for piano and orchestra. But I feel like even I came late to it: these scores have been available for a while and we should have done them earlier. So now we're playing catch-up!

Were you surprised that such fine works could be so underrepresented in the discography? 

Yes, although there have been a few orchestras that have visited her works recently, and at least a couple of albums of her symphonies – and it even just so happened that the Orchestre philharmonique de Radio France performed the Third Symphony a fortnight after we did it. So there's suddenly been a sort of crystallization as part of a larger trend; and, in particular, I've long lobbied for more women in positions of responsibility in culture, and above all for contemporary female composers, who are very underrepresented. But I've also wanted to make a concerted effort to explore older repertoire by women, and to return it to its rightful position.

Did you have any difficulties persuading Warner Classics to record these works?

 When we first did the Third Symphony, we also performed at the Barbican Centre in London for International Women's Day – as well as many other major halls – and, as I said, were encouraged by the positive audience reaction to do all of the works. When I spoke to Warner, they hesitated at first, but then they responded in a remarkable way: they're now actually going to open a series of music by female composers – mainly from the past – so that it can be brought into the limelight. And very soon, after Farrenc, I'm going to start exploring Emilie Mayer, who wrote eight symphonies.

And it's also important that these works be represented by good modern recordings… 

Yes, and also by recordings on period instruments. I feel that especially with Farrenc's style, with its mixture of Classicism and Romantic harmony – those two elements go together very well with the liveliness and the transparency of period instruments. They are highly original works, and they develop a musical language that the musicians in the orchestra know well – and they loved this music straight away. Farrenc was a champion of chamber music – as a pianist herself – and her husband was a flautist, so she wrote extremely well for the winds, meaning that our wind players were immediately very happy! And with the strings, there are moments of sort of delayed Baroque, where it's very chatty, very fast, very articulated, and the string players love that too.

Photo © Julien Mignot

Do you find it encouraging that generally there's a conscious effort to programme and perform more and more works by female composers today? 

It's true, I think, that today we are very conscious on the level of society of injustices with female artists, and most notably creators, and I think that it's our duty to play and record their works. But we have to do so with a lot of care. I often notice when people perform rare works by female composers it is done largely for the sake of it, to "tick the box", so that people can get it out of the way and say, "we've done a female composer now". When I first did Farrenc, though, I juxtaposed her with Beethoven. I did the Beethoven Triple Concerto and Farrenc Third Symphony: I didn't just have her as an aperitif. I said to myself: "If it can stand up to Beethoven, then it can stand up on its own terms" – although Beethoven is of course a different world and you shouldn't compare them.  

Can you tell us something more about Farrenc and what people can expect from her music?

She was the pupil of Anton Reicha, so from the start she was trained in the German culture of formal writing. She has a real inspiration for melody and has a great command of forms – particularly sonata form – and of musical discourse, that's to say of the musical dramaturgy. There are a lot of classical touches, especially Mozartian, and also, in the strings, a virtuosity very much in the Italian style. Her harmonic language is often quite innovative, often carried by the woodwind, and can be reminiscent of Schubert. It's music that's very supple and full of unexpected touches.

One could could that she has less of a command of the art of development, which was so important in Beethoven, where she's a little bit conservative, perhaps. But, on the other hand, you have codas that are really incredibly interesting. She's really someone with a proper compositional technique. Indeed, at the time, people said that she composed "like a man"! 

Insula Orchestra and Laurence Equilbey's new recording of Louise Farrenc's Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3 is out now.

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